Abyei loses an oil field, Sudan gains better prospects for peace?

As Mark forecasted, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration handed down a ruling today on Abyei, the contentious border area that could prove the tinderbox for renewed civil war in Sudan.  A bit surprisingly, the ruling effectively favored the North, shifting the borders of Abyei to award valuable oil fields to the government in Khartoum.  Even more surprising, though, is that — for now at least — everybody seems happy with the decision.

Mutrif Siddig, the Sudanese foreign ministry under-secretary, said that Wednesday’s decision was a “step forward”.

“We respect this decision. And this decision is final and binding because all the parties agreed from the beginning that the decision of the court was binding and final,” he said.

Riek Machar, a representative of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which heads an autonomous regional government in the south, said that he hoped that the ruling would increase the chances for peace.

“We want peace. We think this decision is going to consolidate the peace,” he said. “We came to see justice and it’s a decision we will respect.”

Such punctiliousness is nice and all — particularly on the part of the South, which could be aggrieved at the ruling — but I don’t exactly share U.S. Sudan Envoy Scott Gration’s robust optimism at these rhetorical promises.  It’s worth remembering that a deal was reached four years ago, through an objective commission that determined fair boundaries for Abyei, and that that ruling was also supposed to be “binding and final.”  Diplomatic niceties were followed up to — and no farther than — the point of actually implementing the agreement.

One of the authors of the previous Abyei commission report, the very knowledgeable Douglas Johnson, says that “each side can come away feeling that they have been given something from this arrangement.”  If that’s all it takes to get a viable resolution of the border dispute, then an oil field or two seems worth trading for peace.  Let’s hope both North and South Sudan agree.

(image from UN Photo)